When the Covid hurricane struck in mid-March, most US restaurants pulled down the shutters and called it a day.
That was never an option, though, for Irish American restaurateur and food guru Francis Schott whose Stage Left Steak in New Brunswick, NJ, has always been ahead of the culinary curve.
Rather than hang up his apron, Francis decided to return to the love of breaking bread with others which brought him into the restaurant business in the first place.
[caption id="attachment_109193" align="alignnone" width="474"] BON APPETIT: Stage Left Steak creating a ZoomTown.[/caption]
"I always say we were in the social network business before anyone heard of Facebook or Twitter," said Francis. "For myself and business partner Mark Pascal, it has always been about bringing people together and building community through food. And when that's your guiding light, turning off the lights and walking away — regardless of whether that's the wiser thing to do in terms of dollars-and-cents — is never an option."
Instead, Francis reconfigured a tradition which has helped establish Stage Left Steak's reputation as New Jersey's finest eatery and saw it named last year by Wine Spectator as one of just nine outstanding US restaurants for its stunning selection of wine-by-the-glass: The Wine Dinner.
"In most restaurants, a wine-tasting involves an agent giving a little talk and singing the praises of a brand of wine but at Stage Left, we had always prided ourselves on bringing the vineyard owner to our diners in an old-fashioned format," said Francis. "Our message was, this is one of the country's greatest winemakers and we are bringing him and his wine right to you - there's no wholesaler or agent between you and the person who made the wine. "
When the state ordered all restaurants across New Jersey closed in March, Francis was well-positioned to respond with the first of what has now been 13 Wine Zoom dinners where his customers, from their own kitchen, could finish cooking meals prepared in the Stage Left Kitchen while listening online to the winery owner.
Customers availed of a meal curb-side pick-up service from Stage Left, including wines matched to each course, and then Zoomed in at a set time. "It was clear that people were looking for human contact — or as close as possible to human contact in the era of Covid — and it was completely different from just getting takeaway and eating at home alone," explained Francis. "It was crucial to us that everyone was following the cooking instructions and eating the same food at the same time. We are sharing a meal together which is something very precious at this challenging time."
When the virus restrictions were loosened in New Jersey and diners allowed to eat outside, Francis continued with the Zoom Dinners - in the company of some of America's most famed winemakers streamed in from their wineries. And when the state pushed back indoors dining, indefinitely, Francis felt the pivot towards Zoom dining had served him well — a view echoed by Forbes which praised him for transforming New Brunswick into a ZoomTown.
[caption id="attachment_109190" align="aligncenter" width="610"] SLÁINTE: Mixologist and restaurateur Francis Schott[/caption]
"I had a couple of reasons for wanting to stay open throughout the crisis," he said. "Some of my staff weren't eligible for benefits so I was keen to find a way to keep them on and to keep some revenue coming in. And while it may have been a good call in simple monetary terms to close and thus eliminate all costs, the Zoom dining initiative keeps a connection both with my staff and with my guests. With the Zoom dinners, I can honestly say that I have had dinner with hundreds of my guests, in the company of a celebrity winemaker, and remained a part of their lives by going the extra mile."
And while Francis plans to continue with the Zoom Dinners when the pandemic is over, he doesn't see that much-longed-for day coming any time soon. "I don't think we will get indoor dining in New Jersey in 2020," he said, "and I fear that unless the Federal Government substantially ramps up its support, half of the independently-owned restaurants in the state will not survive. Restaurants depend on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year as well as parties and celebrations to keep going but if you remove October, November and December from the restaurant calendar then you are really taking a sledgehammer to our industry."
If you want to sample the Zoom dinner sensation, the next opportunity will be this Friday 31 July when famed winemaker Count Sebastiano Capponi of Villa Calcinaia in Tuscany (see video below) will be the guest of honour as his wines are corked by the Stage Left Steak virtual diners. The partially-prepared Stage Left mouthwatering meal can be picked up from the restaurant or delivered to most places in New Jersey. Details of wines, menu and how to reserve a place are online.
If you can wait just a little longer, Francis, who famously created the Belfast cocktail (see video at top), is also planning an Irish-themed Zoom dinner to close the Big Irish Echo Campfire on 28 August. Marshmallows and wine, now that will be something worth zooming in for!